Shift to the right threatens existence of European Union

Dr Oliver Hartwich
19 March, 2024

The European Parliament elections in June 2024 will be more than an ordinary political contest. They will be a battle for the soul of Europe in a time of war, economic upheaval and democratic turbulence.  

The election outcome will shape the EU institutions and agenda for the next five years. It will also determine the future of the European project itself. 

All signs point to a significant shift to the right, with populist and Eurosceptic parties projected to make major gains. Far right and populist parties are likely to top the polls in at least nine member states, including heavyweights like France, Italy and Hungary. 

Though a full-blown far-right majority seems unlikely, these parties will undoubtedly gain more clout. The question is how the mainstream centre-right European People’s Party, likely still the largest bloc, will choose to engage with them.

The rise of the far-right has been a slow-burning trend in Europe for years. Disenchantment with the establishment, economic anxieties, opposition to immigration and a cultural backlash against identity politics have all added fuel to the fire.

Parties once dismissed as fringe radicals, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France (formerly the National Front) and Matteo Salvini’s Lega party in Italy, have steadily crept into the mainstream. In doing so, they have changed Europe’s debates on migration, Islam and the EU itself.

One of the most remarkable features of the modern populist right is its growing appeal to young voters. Seduced by their social media savvy and anti-establishment message, the youth vote could swing heavily to the far-right in several countries. Polls show they could win the under-30s in Portugal, France, Austria, and the Netherlands. That is a change from times when young people mainly gravitated towards the left.

Against this backdrop, the war in Ukraine looms large. Support for Ukraine has been a rare point of EU unity so far, but recently cracks have appeared as the economic costs mount and Russian President Vladimir Putin keeps threatening the rest of Europe with nuclear weapons.

If continued support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion is contentious already, paying for Ukraine’s eventual reconstruction, likely hundreds of billions of euros, will be an even bigger challenge. With an energy crisis, high inflation, and poor economic growth already straining EU economies, getting member states to open their wallets will be a tall order. But the alternative – leaving Ukraine in the lurch – would be a geopolitical gift to Putin.

Europe’s far-right is divided on Ukraine. There are longstanding Putin sympathisers such as Le Pen and Salvini, but also staunch Ukraine backers such as Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party. How this tension plays out could determine how long the EU remains willing to support Kyiv.

The election results will also decide the fate of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and her agenda. The EPP, likely to remain the largest bloc, wants her to stay on until 2029.

In 2019, Von der Leyen barely scraped through confirmation, winning a slim 51 percent after pledges to all major groups. Wooing a more splintered Parliament after this year’s election will be a challenge.

During her first term, she staked her legacy on initiatives such as the continent’s green transition and enhancing Europe’s global clout and tech prowess. But a parliament tilted further right could slam the brakes on that agenda, decrying climate measures as too costly and generally opposing more power for Brussels. She will need all her political savvy to keep her vision afloat.

But it is not just the future of the European Commission president that will be decided. The horse-trading over other top EU jobs will be intense.

Will the EPP’s Manfred Weber, brutally snubbed in 2019, finally win the presidency? Or will a dark horse emerge from the ranks of national leaders such as former Dutch PM Mark Rutte (if he does not become Nato Secretary-General before) and current Danish PM Mette Frederiksen? This is the EU, after all. Backroom machinations with surprising outcomes are always a possibility.

On top of that, past European elections have always been interpreted as litmus tests for forthcoming national elections. This year’s election will be no exception. The question will be whether a strong far-right showing in the EU elections augurs similar gains in domestic votes.

In France, Le Pen is already eyeing the 2027 Presidential elections, in which Macron, after two terms, will be ineligible to stand. Austria’s far-right Freedom Party has the chancellorship in its sights in elections later this year. And in several east German states, the Alternative für Deutschland could end up the strongest party.

Concerns such as the cost of living, migration, and immigration will loom large in the campaign. Far-right parties will likely hammer them relentlessly. Meanwhile, the left and Greens face a hard sell on ambitious climate policies amid widespread economic pain.

Mainstream parties, in an effort to defuse the far-right’s appeal, will be tempted to adopt parts of their agenda. Centre-right leaders such as Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer are already hardening their migration rhetoric as a survival tactic. They are likely to test these strategies further in the European Parliament election campaign.

Amid this electioneering, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.

The European project, for all its many flaws, has been an unprecedented experiment in multilateral cooperation in a continent once riven by bloodshed and tyranny. It has also played a consolidating role in uniting Western, liberal democracies – historically against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, today against Putin’s aggressive and authoritarian nationalism.

A European Parliament dominated by the far-right would therefore not just slow down the EU’s inner workings but call into question its very raison d’être. The only chance of centrist, pro-EU parties to counter this threat is to put forward a positive, appealing agenda. So far, its agenda is neither positive nor appealing. It is not even visible.

This year’s European Parliament elections will be a crossroads for the EU. One path leads towards a more perfect union, however imperfect and frustrating the journey has been so far.

The other path leads back towards the continent’s darkest chapters – and into the waiting arms of the Kremlin.

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